Walkabout: Criterion Collection
May 11, 2010
Based on James Vance Marshall’s 1959 novel The Children, Walkabout (1971) marked cinematographer Nicolas Roeg’s feature film debut as a director. Originally, producer Si Litvinoff wanted Roeg to direct an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, but Roeg became fascinated with Marshall’s book and approached British playwright Edward Bond to adapt it into a screenplay. Both respected by their peers but existing on the fringes of mainstream culture, Bond and Roeg decided to transform Marshall’s coming-of-age novel for children into a visual prose poem. Walkabout marked an auspicious debut for Roeg who became an art house darling during the 1970s with films like Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
The film begins with a montage of the urbanized existence of a teenage girl (Agutter) and her younger brother (John). Roeg then contrasts these images with the desolate outback of Australia as the two children accompany their father (Meillon) on a trip into the countryside. As they sit down for a picnic, he inexplicably takes out a pistol and begins shooting at them. He then sets their car on fire and kills himself, leaving his children stranded in the outback. The girl is understandably upset but manages to remain calm and collected for the sake of her little brother.
Initially, the girl and her brother treat their situation as a grand adventure. However, the reality of their situation and how much trouble they are in sets in as their meager resources run out and the heat and sun begin to take its toll on them. Not surprisingly, the harsh environment dominates the film and is almost like another character. Lost and in danger of becoming dehydrated, they meet an aboriginal boy (Gulpilil) on a walkabout, a rite of passage where he learns how to survive in the outback by living off the land. With his impressive hunting skills, he helps the girl and her brother survive.
The three lead young actors deliver excellent performances with Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil being particularly impressive. They spend a lot of time reacting to their environment as much as they do with each other. Agutter and Lucien John are refreshingly devoid of the annoying tics that characterize many child actors. They are quite believable as siblings. Gulpilil transcends the stereotype of the simple, savage native as a savvy aboriginal capable of showing his companions how to survive despite a language barrier.
With the eye of a documentary filmmaker, Roeg includes several shots of insects, birds and other creatures that inhabit this environment that is at once beautiful and foreboding, anticipating films like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and, much later, Rogue (2007) in showing how beautiful and dangerous the Australian outback is, but whereas those last two films were made by Australian filmmakers, Roeg is British and brings a fresh, outsider’s perspective.
Like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Walkabout is a stunning example of visual storytelling. The dialogue is largely unimportant and instead there is an emphasis on behaviour, how the characters interact with each other. Roeg isn’t afraid to employ abstractness or ambiguity so that certain scenes are open to interpretation and thereby inviting repeated viewings.
The first disc features an audio commentary by director Nicolas Roeg and actress Jenny Agutter. Roeg says that the screenplay was only 58-60 pages and the producers asked him if it was a short film. Agutter mentions that when she first heard about the film, Apple, the company The Beatles started, might be financing it and was excited at the prospect of meeting the band (but it never happened). Roeg and Agutter recall several filming anecdotes on this slightly dry track.
The second disc starts off with an interview with Luc Roeg, who played the young boy (and was credited as Lucien John), done exclusively for this disc. Not surprisingly, he considers Walkabout his father’s best film. He describes it as a naturalistic film and how his father wanted the actors to behave that way. Naturally, he tells several filming anecdotes.
Also included is an interview with Jenny Agutter done in 2008. She talks about how she was cast in the film and her initial impressions of Roeg. She speaks very eloquently about working on the film but there is some overlap from the commentary.
Arguably the best extra is “Gulpilil – One Red Blood,” a 56-minute documentary on this fascinating person. Despite appearing in numerous films over the years, he is never forgotten his roots. Director Phillip Noyce speaks highly of his performance in Rabbit Proof Fence (2002). Gulpilil laments how alcohol and smoking has taken its toll on his people. He talks about how he was cast in Walkabout.
Finally, there is the trailer.